My daughter hated first grade. She started out behind in reading, and the work required to catch her up made her miserable. She had extra reading homework every night, and she was pulled out of class every day to work with a tutor. Her teacher saw her reading skills improve dramatically and was happy with her success, but I saw the other side—the tears at night, the stomach aches in the morning, and the refusal to go into bookstores or libraries. Tina never made it to the Christmas break; I withdrew her from school.
A few years went by and Tina still couldn’t read. Attempts to teach her failed miserably. Instead I read to her and we played fantasy games that required us taking characters and acting out scenes. She also created a TV show in her head, complete with toys that she’d spin off from the storyline and sell during the commercial breaks. By the time she’d reached the age where she would have been in fourth grade, she had an excellent vocabulary and a formidable grasp of story structure and dialogue, but she still couldn’t read.
She loved anime. When I discovered fan fiction online, she decided to write her own. She started by dictating to me. One day she stopped in mid-dictation and said, “What was the name of that mark you told me about? The one in the Archie comics that they put at the end of every sentence to show that it’s exciting?”
“An exclamation point,” I replied. I was surprised that she remembered the only lesson I ever gave her in punctuation.
“Well, put an exclamation point in there after that last sentence. Have you got it?” she asked, peering over my shoulder. Satisfied, she went back to her narrative. Eventually she began to wonder what other sorts of special marks there might be that she could use to advantage. I made a list of punctuation marks with their names and taped it near the computer so she could consult it as she paced back and forth, constructing her story. She sorted the marks out pretty quickly, and began voicing them when she dictated, as if I were a telegrapher.
After several days of this, I finally told her that there was only so much time I was willing to give to taking dictation. She grudgingly began typing herself, calling out for help as needed.
“Where’s the “L”?” “I can’t find the question mark.” “How do you spell ‘national’?”
Days went by. Gradually the questions became less frequent, and the spelling improved. I found spelling tests online and began giving them to her. She loved them; they were measures of her success. The last one I gave her was a list of words commonly misspelled by college students. She did very well.
And she could read. After years of worry and hopeful waiting and fingers crossed white-knuckle tight, she could read.
And even better, she saw reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and even keyboarding as helpful tools rather than arbitrary and exasperating school crap.
Happy National Punctuation Day!